Bulls rout Sixers in Game 1, Rose hurt in fourth quarter


Bulls rout Sixers in Game 1, Rose hurt in fourth quarter

Playing the first game of the entire NBA playoffs for the second consecutive postseason, the Bulls didnt experience any of their typical early-start issuesthey had a 2-6 record in matinee games during the regular seasonSaturday afternoon at the United Center, easily handling the 76ers, as Derrick Rose took a major step in returning to his previous form after an injury-plagued season. However, despite taking a 1-0 first-round series lead in triumphant fashion, the games ending couldnt have been worse, as Rose apparently suffered a left-knee injury with 1:10 remaining in the contest and had to be helped off by the teams medical staff.

After Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday opened the games scoring with a triple, the hosts rattled off 10 unanswered points, as four of the teams five starters got on the board in the early going, led by All-Star Luol Deng. While the Sixers responded behind Elton Brandthe veteran power forward is familiar with the confines from his stint with the Bulls, for whom he won Rookie of the Year honorsshooting guard Rip Hamilton clearly looked poised for the postseason, as the former champion with the Pistons scored 11 first-quarter points.

Philadelphia was mostly forced to settle for contested outside jumpers, a staple of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus vaunted defense and thusly dug themselves an early hole. However, the insertion of some of Philadelphias dangerous reservesincluding Chicago native Evan Turner, who was booed by his hometown fans for comments perceived as disparaging the Bullsparticularly athletic backup forward Thaddeus Young, sparked the visitors, who closed to within 28-24 at the conclusion of the opening period.

After the Sixers ran off the second quarters first four points to tie the contest, C.J. Watson, Roses understudy at point guardthe reigning league MVP struggled with his shot in the previous frame, going 1-for-7, but snatched five rebounds, dished out three assists and most importantly, appeared healthyled a Bulls push to give the home team some breathing room. But the feisty guests stormed back, as Turner, playing in a point-forward role with one of the positions predecessors, Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, watching from courtside, was a major catalyst.

Although Brand continued his solid first-half play, he was countered by his fellow veteran Hamilton, whose ability to get out in transition was a boon for the Bulls with Rose still trying to find his groove, as well as center Joakim Noahs high activity level. Toward the end of the period, the Bulls lead ballooned to double figures, stemming from Roses emergence, as the All-Star point guard started knocking down shots, at one point making three in a rowa driving layup, his patented floater and a pull-up jumperleading to the Bulls taking a 53-42 advantage into the intermission.

Turner, who started the second half in place of ineffective shooting guard Jodie Meeks, helped the Sixers cut the deficit to single digits, leading to a Thibodeau timeout for defensive adjustments. His strategy apparently worked, as the Bulls not only clamped down on defense, but the backcourt of Rose and Hamilton started to get off, pushing the hosts lead back to a comfortable double-digit margin and inciting a crowd that had been relatively quiet since the break.

A villain in his own hometown, Turner did nothing to help his image in Chicago, as he fouled Noah on a dunk attempt, got tangled up with Boozerresulting in technical on Rose, Hamilton and Brand after a mild skirmishand on the next possession, fouled Hamilton and briefly exchanged words before Deng pulled his teammate away. Aside from all of the hard feelings, the Bulls headed into the final stanza with a 79-66 edge, despite Philadelphia All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala finally making an impact.

The Bench Mob extended the Bulls lead, as designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver and always-energetic power forward Taj Gibson propelled the squad, holding off a potential Sixers run. Thibodeau would eventually reinsert Deng and Rosewho was already flirting with a triple-doubleand while they both contributed with timely baskets, Korvers shooting, as well as the interior defense of Gibson and tag-team partner Omer Asik was the difference in the hosts advantage ballooning to a 20-point spread midway through the period.

Noah also rejoined the mix and resumed being a dominating force on the glass, while Korver continued to drain jumpers and the Bulls turned the games stretch run into extended garbage time. But with 1:10 on the clock, Rose drove to the basket and appeared to bang knees with Sixers backup center Spencer Hawes, causing him to lay prone on the floor in pain, as the United Center fell to a hush while the Bulls trainers assisted him off the court and he heavily favored his left knee, which would make it his sixth separate injury of difficult campaign, putting a damper on what was previously an afternoon filled with joy.

Clearing a major NFC North hurdle, Bears “closers” handle Vikings 25-20 to cement hold on first place

Clearing a major NFC North hurdle, Bears “closers” handle Vikings 25-20 to cement hold on first place

In order to supplant the king, you first must defeat the king, or in the case of the NFC North, maybe kings, plural. The Bears took a major step toward that goal with their downing of the Minnesota Vikings 25-20 Sunday night in Soldier Field, in the process stepping over the team that won the NFC North division two of the past three years and has been to the postseason three times since the Bears last went. 
“Being able to play four quarters of good football against that [Minnesota] team says we’re headed in the right direction,” said coach Matt Nagy. “I don’t know if it was making a statement. We feel like we can play with anybody in this league…. .[The Vikings] are good. We know that. Our guys want to be a part of that… .
“This defense we just faced is one of the best defenses in the NFL. We did enough on our side on offense to get the win.”
The win comes a week after a dominant victory the Detroit Lions, who’d beaten the Bears (7-3) nine of their previous 10 encounters and who host the Bears in Ford Field on Thanksgiving. The matter of Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers remain to be addressed a second time this season (Dec, 16). But with the Packers wobbling at 4-5-1 with their loss on Thursday, the more immediate and larger problem was the Vikings, who had vanquished the Bears in eight of their last nine meetings.
Sunday’s win the ninth time in 10 games that the Bears have tallied at least 23 points, and it also left the Bears as one of only three NFC teams with as many as seven wins (Los Angeles and New Orleans are both 9-1), with only Carolina and Washington, both 6-4, the only other conference teams with more than five wins.
“Division games are all very important,” said running back Tarik Cohen. “We didn’t win any last year so to get two back-to-back is great. We are definitely going in the right direction.”
But for the Bears to move deeper into the NFL playoff discussion, certain things had to happen. For the most part on Sunday, they did.

Closers in the making?

The win was more than just another win for a team starved for them since that season. This victory was a significant step on the 
the Bears’ climb from cellar to respectability and then some in a division they once ruled but have been more recently barely an afterthought.

“We’ve got to keep it rolling, continue to stay hungy, stay humble and continue to believe in one another,” said quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, whose 61.9 passer rating was his lowest of the season, in large part because of throwing a pair of interceptions amid his 20-of-31 passing for 165 yards and a TD.

For the Bears to ascend to elite levels in the NFL, where winning margins are declining, the Bears needed their young quarterback to demonstrate not only that he can obliterate the bottom feeders, but also close out games against the good teams.

Trubisky was in his 22nd NFL start Sunday night, with an arrow pointing up but still in need of defining moments where, with a game on the line, the young quarterback takes his team down the field for a clinching score. One of those moments presented itself against the Vikings late Sunday night.

Trubisky was equal to that moment. 

With Minnesota closing to within one score at 22-14 and a little less than 5 minutes to play, and his team having failed to get farther than the Minnesota 44-yard line on its first four possessions of the half, Trubisky guided the offense from the Chicago 25 on an eight-play, 45-yard drive to the Vikings 30. From there kicker Cody Parkey’s third field goal of the game, this one from 48 yards, put the Bears up by a critical second score in a game where the Vikings had almost imperceptibly been taking the game away from the Bears after a dominant Chicago first half.

The Vikings (5-4-1) managed an answering touchdown but failed to convert their go-for-two when defensive lineman Akiem Hicks blocked a Kirk Cousins pass to close out a 25-20 win for the Bears’ first four-game win streak since 2012. It was one of multiple critical defensive stops, topped by safety Eddie Jackson’s 27-yard pick-6 of a Cousins pass midway through the fourth quarter at a point where the Vikings were in position for a potential tying score.

“That was a huge play,” Nagy said. “We were fighting and clawing on offense a little bit, there wasn’t a lot of rhythm.”

The Bears were limited to 106 second-half yards but outgained the Vikings 308-268 and, against a Minnesota defense historically good on the money down, converted six of 12 third downs.

The defense, which held its seventh of 10 opponents to fewer than 315 total yards, got a fitting prime-time game from Khalil Mack, with the rush-linebacker delivering a sack, a second hit on Cousins, a pass broken up, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The Bears were credited with 9 tackles for loss, with Hicks adding a sack and five tackles for loss.

This on top of Parkey converting three field goals in a game ultimately decided by five points.

Shaking of danger indicators
Ominous signs surfaced early. The Bears pushed the Vikings backwards for 64 yards on 12 plays to the Minnesota 15 on the first Chicago possession. But the offense lost six yards in two plays and was forced to settle for three points – often a harbinger of disaster against good teams.

The defense managed a takeaway to stop the Vikings on the ensuing possession but Trubisky threw toward Taylor Gabriel bracketed in crowded coverage and was intercepted. The Bears had gotten points and at least a field-goal attempt after 17 of their 22 takeaways before Sunday that weren’t followed by the end of the game or a half.

The Bears left that first half with a 14-0 lead and had deferred after winning the coin toss, so had the football to start the third quarter. But they failed to cross midfield on that and the next two possessions, Minnesota driving for field goals after the latter two. The Bears only reached the Minnesota 44 on their fourth possession of the half, where Trubisky narrowly avoided a pick-6 on a sloppy third-down throw off his back foot.

All that was rendered moot when Jackson intercepted the careless Cousins throw for a pick-6 of his own. The Bears went for a two-point conversion for the second time after touchdowns and got the lead to 22-6 on a toss from Trubisky to tight end Adam Shaheen. It was the first time active for Shaheen this season, sent to IR with a foot injury to open the season, out of a formation that included defensive lineman Hicks inserted as an eligible wide receiver.

In the interest of perspective, the last times Bears teams stood 7-3 at the 10-game mark, they flamed out. Those were in 2011, at which point the season collapsed along with Jay Cutler’s right thumb. In 2012 the Bears even went to 8-3 but then lost three straight and eventually lost out in a tiebreaker with the Vikings, who finished 4-2 in the division vs. the Bears at 3-3.

The last time the Bears won four straight was in that 2012 season, when the Lovie Smith group ripped off six straight before reversing course with five losses in the next six.

But for a team that now has topped all full-season win totals since 2013, the focus was on Minnesota, the only team with a winning record other than New England that the Bears have faced so far.

“It shows we can battle with the best of them,” Cohen said. “It shows we are still getting better and that we haven’t reached our ceiling yet.”

Growth under Matt Nagy shines as Bears take stranglehold on NFC North

Growth under Matt Nagy shines as Bears take stranglehold on NFC North

The Bears have grown plenty since blowing a 20-point lead against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 and brutally losing to the Miami Dolphins in Week 6. But in Sunday night’s 25-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Bears showed that growth in how they finished — and it wasn’t just one unit putting the team on its back. Offense, defense and special teams came through to earn the 7-3 Bears a 1 1/2-game lead in the NFC North. 

This wasn’t an easy game for the Bears to finish, not after a Mitch Trubisky interception and Tarik Cohen fumble suddenly gave the Vikings life midway through the second half. Those two turnovers resulted in field goals — a testament to the play of the Bears’ defense — but still brought the Vikings within eight points.

Eddie Jackson’s pick six with eight and a half minutes left, though, seemed to seal the game (at the least, it probably sealed the safety’s place in the Pro Bowl). But the Vikings were able to muster an 11-play, 64-yard scoring drive after it to again move within one score. 

Facing a third-and-eight, and the uncertain prospect of giving the ball back to a team that pulled off the Minneapolis Miracle in January, Trubisky delivered his biggest throw of the day: A 17-yard strike to Allen Robinson, which converted the first down. Aided by a Harrison Smith penalty that tacked 15 yards onto a five-yard Trubisky scramble, the Bears moved into field goal range. 

And then Cody Parkey — the guy who kicked in front of an empty Soldier Field and two news helicopters during the week — put the game out of reach with a 48-yard field goal. Nearly the entire Bears team bounded off its sideline to greet Parkey, displaying the kind of spirit instilled in this group by Matt Nagy and its leaders since they first got together in April. 

The Bears needed that kick, too, as Kirk Cousins found Stefon Diggs for a touchdown with 48 seconds left that brought Minnesota back within a score. Benny Cunningham recovered an onside kick — something the Bears failed to do last week against the Detroit Lions — sealing the win. 

This was a game the Bears might not have won in September. They might not have won it in October, either. But a young team coalescing around its first-year head coach, a dominant defense and a more than good enough offense won it in November against a good team. And in doing so, they proved they can do it in December. 

And January, too.